Leyla Yunus: the threatful price for defending dissent in Azerbaijan
We are in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic and the traditional host city of the inter-annual Forum 2000, conference, founded by former Czech President Václav Havel and focused on promoting the fight for Human Rights. Some of the most prominent protagonists in this field meet in a palace located on one of the islands of the Vltava river, both to discuss recent world trends and to share specific events and personal stories. One of them is Leyla Yunus from Azerbaijan, whom we are waiting for in the press room. When she enters, we notice that she walks slowly and with some difficulty, however, her eyes display the kind face of a person of firm conviction. She spent dozens of years of persecution in her home country, saw her husband suffer serious illnesses in prison, and had to send her daughter into exile to protect her from possible kidnapping. Despite everything, today she continues to run her organization from the Netherlands and to support dissidents from afar. Leyla Yunus sits down and begins to tell the story of her life marked by totalitarian regimes, ethnic persecution, but also by the relentless hope of seeing a better world.
Leyla Yunus is the Director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy and the founder of Women Crisis Center in Azerbaijan. Ms. Yunus has published extensively on regional security, state-building, democratization, and Human Rights in the Caucasus. Her work in the sphere of Human Rights began in Azerbaijan during the Soviet period as Ms. Yunus was a member of the illegal movement “National Minorities Against Bolshevist Regime”. On May 2013 Ms. Yunus received the prestigious honor of the International Theodor-Haecker-Prize and became a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour. Ms. Yunus created a list with the names of all the post 1995 political prisoners in Azerbaijan and was incarcerated from the 30th of July, 2014 until the 9th of December, 2015. In April 2016 Ms. Yunus emigrated to and currently resides in the Netherlands.
- A Childhood under the USSR
How do you remember your childhood?
My family was affected by repression. Two of our menfolk died fighting the fascists during the Second World War. The arrests and executions of Red fascism took away five more young lives. I remember friends of my grandfather visiting us in our home to have tea and talk about how it was to live in Stalin’s concentration camps in Siberia. I remember they were saying that in the concentration camps, the best was if you were a doctor. But, for the intelligence, it was very difficult to live there. My grandfather was speaking about how his younger brother died in Siberia. My childhood was full of these stories. I was born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. I lived all my life in a house where six Jewish families lived. Five families were Armenians, four were Russians and three were Azerbaijanis. It was very multinational. I was Azerbaijani only when I went to school and still, I needed to eat matza for my breakfast.
Baku is the capital city of Azerbaijan, its history goes back up to the 4th Century. The city is strategically important for Europe’s and Central Asia’s Historical development.
How did you get involved in the fight for a more democratic and free society?
I studied History at the University. After that I went for research assistantship to Moscow. One day at the library, someone asked me to support with my signature the return of Tartars to Crimea. I agreed and I became a member of the underground movement to support national minorities against Bolshevik’s regime. My professors were from Baltic states, from Ukraine. Some of them stayed in Siberia for various years, I was one of the youngest there. The meetings usually took place in houses in the woods. One night, I remember I was sleeping next to an older woman. She told me that in 1939 when the Soviet Union occupied Baltic states, her family was sent to Siberia. After the Second World War only she and her sister were alive. In 1948 she was deported again. I could not imagine there could have been such a strong woman as this Estonian lady. She had not had any education, she told me, and therefore did not take part in our discussions. But she did what she could, and, with two other women of her age, she cooked the food and cleaned the dishes. “I am making my contribution to our struggle for freedom – that’s the most important thing”, this admirable woman said. “For your freedom and for ours,” I replied.”
How important was the multicultural background for you?
This is an ultimately important topic for me. My grandmother, she was German. When the Second World War started, all my family was deported, except her, because she married a man from Azerbaijan. During all her life, she did not speak about the family. My husband once asked her what the name of her mother was. She did not reply… after 45 years. When I married my husband, we never thought about nationality. In my family, everybody is a human being first and has to be a good person. Nationality does not matter. The mother of my husband is Armenian. We never thought about this, but when the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia begun, it was just horrible. He had to take her from Azerbaijan to save her. I had no idea about those pogroms. I was at the conference of the Popular Front in Tallin. In our home only my mother and our daughter stayed, who was four years old. There was an episode, when some people wanted to attack the house because they knew there were Armenian families living there. My mother took a gun, which belonged to my grandfather who liked to hunt, she put it in the window and said she would open fire if they attacked the house. All my life I have tried to explain myself… an old woman alone in a house with a child and a gun ready to shoot. Sometimes I think how stupid all this is. For years, my mother was forced to hide the fact that her grandmother was German. Many years passed. My daughter was forced to hide that her grandmother was Armenian.
“In Azerbaijan there is no rule of law at all. The civil society is destroyed. The international community is closing their eyes. It is so difficult to speak with the mothers of those victims…”
Your husband went to prison in 1976. What was the reason and how was this period of your life?
We were not married yet, we got married in 1978. He was in the army and he was a historian. He had some correspondence with his friends, in which he wrote very openly against the Soviet regime. He was arrested by the KGB. There was no trial. Azerbaijan leaders did not want any dissidents in their country, it was not good for their image. He was not tortured at that time; it was more like permanently getting invitations to the KGB .
You got involved in the dissident movement in Azerbayan in the 80’. What were your activities?
In the Soviet Union the name is samizdat. I worked for the samizdat newspaper . Me and my husband, we sent information about repressions in Azerbaijan to the Voice of America, BBC… There were different exile publications, for example in France and we published there. In Gorbachev’s regime there were no repressions, nobody knew about that.
After that you were one of the founders of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan in Support of Perestroika. How was it possible to establish this movement in 1988?
We had connection with Baltic states, with Ukraine and Lithuania. In this period the Popular Front starts to emerge in different places around the Soviet Union. We started our activity as scientists in academies. It was not a Popular Front, but a scientific club for improvements in teaching history without soviet ideology. When we saw the tendency in other territories, we adopted the programme of the Popular Front, created a council, and then organized the first congress. I was elected as a member of the board. We wanted more democracy and pluralism.
2. The broken dream of a free country
It was 11th August 2011, me and my husband we were in Norway and we just received a call that in evening hours the demolition would take place.
What was the atmosphere in the society in the time of the Soviet Union collapse?
In 1989 some English newspapers published an article where they wrote that the Azerbaijan nation was the nation of 1989, because so many people were suddenly involved in the democratic movement. In Baku, there were one million people demonstrating at the square. As a result, on 20th January the Soviet troops entered Baku and we had more than one hundred victims during the intervention. The society struggled for independence. There was a lot of hope for change. The majority tried to do something.
In June of 1993 Aliyev, former official of KGB, became president. What did that mean for you?
It was horrible. Azerbaijan is not like Ukraine or Czechia. The society is based on clans. Aliyev created this in 1969. Before, the clans had no importance in the Soviet regime. He changed it and created this clans. When the Popular Front wanted more democracy, this clan structure was very powerful. There was a lot of repression. In 2000, on my list of political prisoners there were 700 names. In 1995 we established the Institute for Peace and Democracy and since that time we report about all the repression and tortures.
Azerbaijan is a peculiar country. It has huge oil and gas deposits. What do you think about the attitude of the Western countries? Do you feel there is a lack of condemnation because of rich oil and gas reserves?
Unfortunately, the US, Russia and Turkey supported the son of Heydar Aliyev in 2003. When I met with representatives of the State Department, they were like… “you know, he is young, speaks English very well, it will be alright”. Maybe they really believed it. But from 2003 until today under his rule the situation is much more horrible than it was in Brezhnev times. Last year, they tortured a 15-year-old boy, they thought he was an Armenian spy. The west supports this regime because of its oil and gas reserves. This regime also pays money directly to some politicians to receive their support. In April 2017 there was an investigation in the Council of Europe, there was a special report saying that Ilham Aliyev dedicated 3 billion euros to buy members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Already in September 2011, these members of Parliament, that were supposed to monitor the situation in Azerbaijan, came to Baku and had a press conference. I was there and I asked Pedro Agramut, Spanish rapporteur in the Parliamentary Assembly, about how much money he did receive for covering the Human Rights violations. This was in 2011… and no attention. After six years they published his case and he lost his position. After six years! So, these people open the borderline for more brutal oppression in Azerbaijan. Now, the EU and the Council of Europe gave about one million euros to Azerbaijan government for two projects. Now, who are the members of the project? The Minister of Justice, judges and so on. It should be for educational proposes… But this are people who torture others and put them in prison. The citizens of the EU pay taxes, they should ask about where this money goes.
3. Living under threat
One day, a family from the north of Azerbaijan came and told me a horrible story. Girls between seven and fourteen years old from one family went to a forest to pick some fruits, and they were kidnapped.
You were forced to send your daughter to the Netherlands, because you received information that government officials were planning to kidnap her…
In 2009 our Institute for Peace and Democracy was famous in Azerbaijan. One day, a family from the north of Azerbaijan came and told me a horrible story. Girls between seven and fourteen years old from one family went to a forest to pick some fruits, and they were kidnapped. Nobody could find them. They applied to police and so on, and finally the people themselves they found the three guys who kidnapped these girls. During the investigations, these guys said that it was not the first time they kidnapped girls. There was a big investigation. They claimed they did it for money they received from the local police chief officer. They signed it. We published everything and the Minister of Internal Affairs said it was not true and that I was an enemy of the nation and so on. One day, I received information saying that I was very stupid because I have a daughter and I did not think about her. The next day the Polish ambassador gave her a visa and took her to Warsaw. I left my office, but my colleague stayed and his wife visited him. She was the same age and same hair color as my daughter. When she went out of the office, someone tried to kidnap her. She was brave, fought against and he could not take her away. Some neighbors saw the scene. My husband was also there and they fought for a couple of minutes. I understood it was very serious. Nowadays, my daughter lives in the Netherlands.
In 2011 the government destroyed your house which was also the office of your institution…
It was 11th August 2011, me and my husband we were in Norway and we just received a call that in evening hours the demolition would take place. We were lucky that our colleagues were working in the office, so they invited journalists and we have all the documentation. They destroyed the house, library, archives… everything. We also did not receive one penny for this and nobody spoke with us.
Another incident happened in 2014, when you were trying to travel to the Netherlands to visit your daughter…
Yes, I was arrested and five days later so was my husband. They said we were spies of Armenia. It is so stupid, we live in the 21st century, everything is online. If you want to know if I visited some conference, just google it. They said we gave the Armenian government a plan of one of the roads in Azerbaijan.
“My husband stayed alone in a special security prison for sixteen months. During the first six months he was tortured in the night.”
Author’s quotations from Radio Free Europe: “Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus were sentenced to 8 1/2 and 7 years in prison, respectively, in August 2015 for “fraud” and other purported crimes related to their NGO work. Supporters said the charged were trumped up. Amnesty International recognized the couple as prisoners of conscience.”
Can you describe the conditions in the prison?
The situation of my husband was worst. He stayed alone in a special security prison for sixteen months. During the first six months he was tortured in the night. He also could not sleep during the day. It was prohibited. Now, we live in the Netherlands and he still needs rehabilitation and medical support because of those horrible tortures. He has a problem with unpredictable pain attacks as a result of torture. I stayed in a women special prison. They put in one cell with me a woman with criminal background and she attacked me. It was very difficult.
Author’s quotations from Radio Free Europe: “Toward the end of 2015, the Yunuses were released from jail and their sentences were suspended due to their poor health.
Leyla Yunus, 59, suffers from a number of ailments including diabetes and hepatitis C. She appeared frail as she left the courtroom on December 9, walking with difficulty and leaning on her husband.
Arif Yunus was released in November, also on health grounds. The prosecution of Leyla and Arif Yunus has been condemned by the international community as part of a deepening crackdown on dissent in Azerbaijan.”
Toward the end of 2015, the Yunuses were released from jail and their sentences were suspended due to their poor health.
Leyla Yunus, 59, suffers from a number of ailments including diabetes and hepatitis C. Source: Radio Free Europe. Photo: Amnistía Internacional.
4. Exile and international activism
Now, you live in the Netherlands with your family. What are your current activities?
We registered the Institute of Peace and Democracy in the Netherlands. We have a website which I invite everybody to visit. We received financial support from the National Endowment for Democracy. The current project is the monitoring of the juridical system in Azerbaijan. We monitor the trials of political prisoners and publish illegal decisions. We work with professionals in juridical system, in medicine, and also of course with the parents of the victims.
Can you describe the current situation of political prisoners in Azerbaijan?
Today (October 2019) we have 127 political prisoners with a population of approximately 10 million people. For example, Russia’s population is 140 million and there are about 200 political prisoners. They are bloggers, journalists, relatives of activists who live in exile. About 50 of these prisoners are just religious Muslims. Since there is no freedom to discuss in open space, young people go to Mosques. Unfortunately, there have even been murders. In 2018 six people were killed. In 2017 they arrested people in the Tartar region, and again they claimed they were Armenian spies. Without any judicial process, the services tortured them and ten people died. I spoke on Skype with their relatives. There is no rule of law at all. The civil society is destroyed. The international community is closing their eyes. It is so difficult to speak with the mothers of those victims…
Note from the editor: “The Price of Freedom: Torture of political prisoners in Europe today” by Leyla and Arif Yunus was recently translated and published in English in the Netherlands. Click here to access and purchase.
The opinions and statements expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the Dissidents.org team, Fundacion para el Progreso, or the organizations that cooperate with this project. The same is valid for the opinions, statements and actions of the interviewees in other moments and contexts, both in the past and in the future.